Friday, October 22, 2010

Kids & Bullying & the "It Gets Better" Project

As a middle-schooler, I was bullied. This is not a unique experience. As a high school student, one of my best friends came out to me and also told me that he was thinking about killing himself. I don't quite remember what happened next, but I know that I told my mom, who presumably told someone else. Thankfully, my friend did not kill himself. He is alive and well and leading an interesting, varied, fulfilling life in New York City.

Now I am a teacher. Ever since my first year of teaching, when I was an intern, my students have come to me when they were feeling threatened. Maybe it's because I'm still awkward enough that they can see the shadow of the bullied girl inside. Maybe it's because I will not let them say derogatory things to one another or make comments like "That's so gay."

K was a junior. She IM'ed me in a panic. Someone had been calling her house, accusing her of checking out other girls at the Homecoming Dance (which she had attended, ironically, with her boyfriend). K had dated girls in the past, with little to no reaction from her peers, so she was stunned and hurt and very upset by this new reaction. She called me on the phone, crying, but begged me not to tell anyone else about it. I told her I wasn't sure I could do that and ended up relaying the information to a guidance counselor at the school. This school was one that took the safety of its students very seriously, especially with this incident coming less than 1 year after a student killed himself. They put some pieces together and decided that there was a larger pattern of generalized bullying going on at the school. They called an all-school assembly, after which the issue was discussed in our advisory groups.

This is where things get interesting, to me, in dealing with the issue of bullying. Yes, it's important to reach out to the bullied and make them feel better, and yes, we have to convey to the bullies that their behavior is unacceptable, but there is a larger group out there: the bystanders. Those who do not get involved, who do not say anything for fear of being sucked into being bullied themselves.

My juniors got together after the assembly and started to generally bitch and moan about the topic. "Like what am I supposed to do?" In what was not my finest moment as a teacher, and full of the memory of being picked on in middle school, I snapped back at them.

"I get it, but you don't have to be their best friend. All you have to do is provide a little cover. You know exactly who those kids are that are being bullied, let's not pretend otherwise. All you have to do is be friendly -- would it kill you to say hi to them in the hallway? Sit next to them in class or in the lunchroom? You two are on the football team. You really think someone's going to come mess with you for being friends with a target? You have to say something when someone is getting picked on and I know it's hard, but it's also easy. 'Knock it off. Don't say that. Lay off.'"

If you want to live in the kind of community where you don't have to worry about being picked on, you also have to make the kids responsible for keeping other kids from being picked on. The bystanders have to step up and we have to help them do it. We must all be responsible for one another.

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